NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick made history last weekend by becoming the first female driver to claim pole for the Daytona 500 and, whether she wins it or not, her achievement will be consigned to the annals of the sport.
Where such a feat ranks among the other memorable moments in the history of NASCAR’s showpiece curtain-raiser is largely a moot point, as they have all helped to define the sport in some way.
So with that in mind, here are a handful of historic Daytona 500 moments – ranked only by chronological order – that include photo finishes, fisticuffs and underdog winners, all brought to life thanks to the archival wonderment that is YouTube.
1. 1979 – Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!
The 1979 Daytona 500 was the first time that the race was broadcast live from start to finish, and so, with the nation’s eyes glued to their television sets for this momentous occasion, it was vital that NASCAR put on a show for the viewers at home.
And that they did, because shortly after Richard Petty took the chequered flag, Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough became embroiled in a punch-up following their last lap altercation that dashed their chances of glory.
Bobby Allison then waded into the slugfest alongside brother Donnie, a few shoves and several punches were thrown and, rather than look on the incident in dismay, audiences were captivated by what they saw and it increased NASCAR’s popularity like never before.
“I think it helped make a lot of fans,” Yarborough is quoted as saying years later. “People looked at that and said, ‘These boys are real people and they do real things.’ Looking back now, I think it’s one of the biggest things that ever happened in the sport. It got people’s attention.”
The 30th Daytona 500 marked the dawn of the modern restrictor plate era following a few scary incidents, not least Bobby Allison’s spectacular crash at Talladega in 1987 when his car took off into the crash fencing as the pack raced at over 200mph.
Fortunately, the accident had no long lasting effects and Allison was able to take his third Daytona 500 victory the following year, but through no help from his son, Davey.
Allison junior waited until the final lap to put a pass on his old man – chances are if he’d tried any early it would’ve cost them both the victory – but Bobby was too strong and became the oldest driver to ever win the event.
3. 1990 – Dale doesn’t do it.
Derrike Cope pulled off a massive upset when he won the 1990 Daytona 500, having snatched victory from fans’ favourite Dale Earnhardt who dominated the race and was poised to take the most elusive win of his career.
Earnhardt led 155 of the 200 laps, in fact, he lead all the way until Turn 3 on the final lap when a piece of track debris shredded his right rear tyre, allowing Cope to take an unlikely victory.
4. 1998 – Dale finally does it.
At the 20th time of asking, Dale Earnhardt finally won the sport’s biggest event, and while the race itself was nothing to write home about, the truly memorable moment came at the end as he trundled down the pit road to rapturous applause from friend and foe alike.
It was, and probably will forever remain, the most popular victory in the history of NASCAR.
5. 2011 – Bayne’s world!
A day after his 20th birthday, the virtually unknown Trevor Bayne became the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 in 2011.
The event marked only his second Sprint Cup start, but his inexperience didn’t show as he led the final six laps and fought off a last-ditch attack by Carl Edwards to win the race by just 0.118 seconds.
So unexpected was his victory – the first for the Wood Bros. since 1976 – that Bayne completely missed the entrance to Victory Lane.
“Our first 500, are you kidding me?” said Bayne, shortly after taking the chequered flag. “Wow. This is unbelievable.”